A Compass for Teenagers

Youth Specialties
October 4th, 2016

We’re excited to have Sharon Ketcham as one of our NYWC speakers. This blog post is a great start to the conversations she’ll be navigating in her seminar: When Faith and Life Rub: Equipping Teenagers to Navigate the Complexities. Check out more information HERE

It’s Christmas morning, 2004. 

My family is sitting around a tree displaying memories across generations.  We are ‘present giving people’ who relish hunting for the perfect, and undoubtedly thoughtful, gift.  So Christmas morning is a sacred ritual for us.  Well – for most of us. My husband, Geoff, inherited this tradition by marrying me.  He finds the expectations accompanying present opening similar to a pressure cooker.

This is why the beautifully wrapped gift under the tree takes me by surprise.  The gold paper flecked with glittering stars passes through family members’ hands and into my own.  “Gift wrapped?” I ask with anticipation.  Geoff smiles confidently, which surely says he’s found the gift this year.  I carefully remove the ribbon and peel back the shiny paper…a GPS?  Geoff laughs at my disbelief.  “Sharon, I really cannot help you find your way around Boston while I’m at work.”  My dad howls and slaps his knee, “What a perfect gift!  If she can’t reach you, she calls me.”

I am directionally challenged (a.k.a. I have NO sense of direction).  

I’ve been known to hand the navigation role over to middle schoolers on youth group trips.  The invention of GPS systems and map apps (especially those with lovely English accents) are lifelines for someone like me.

My brother-in-law came to Boston for a conference.  With my new GPS plugged in, I confidently make my way into the city.  Boston isn’t a planned city like D.C., Dallas, or L.A.  It organically emerged into a charming, albeit perplexing, jumble of twists and turns.   All is well until the signal gets lost amidst the tall buildings.  The infamous “rerouting” echoes over and over as I drive in circles around the same streets.  Because I lack an internal sense of direction, I have no point of orientation from which to gain my bearings.  I was at the mercy of the step-by-step instructions.  My next Christmas present better be a compass!

A compass is exactly what I want to give teenagers.  The purpose of a compass is to provide a point of orientation so we know what direction to head in.  When teenagers encounter a rub between faith and life – when the GPS doesn’t hold instructions for the terrain – they need a compass to navigate a way forward.  We live in an increasingly complex world.  This is neither a hyperbolic nor alarmist statement.  It’s a fact, which has both positive and negative implications.

The world around us is rapidly changing.

My daughter recently heard a joke about the yellow pages, which she didn’t get because she’s never seen this relic from the past.  We regularly read about advances in artificial intelligence, changing international allies, and fluctuating economies.  The teenagers you meet know nothing other than change.  

We live in an increasingly multi-vocal world.

Fifty years ago, we more commonly lived in homogeneous communities and had to seek out diverse people.  Today, highlighting a person’s distinctiveness captures our attention.  What we hold in common is less important than how we are unique.  Weighing many perspectives is a norm for rising generations.

We live in an information-accessible world.

We can take free courses from prestigious universities and access historical archives on our phones.  From Olympic gold to failed government takeovers, our notifications buzz just moments after events take place across oceans.  We buy Toms for people we have never met and grieve for shooting victims from places we have never been.  For today’s teenagers, access to vast amounts of information is a given.

In a fast-paced, multi-vocal, and information-full world, living as a Christian is simply more complex.  Knowledge about the Bible and Christian doctrine are important, and youth ministers, like yourself, know how valuable such teaching is.  Yet, we already know that trying to secure faith by teaching the right information doesn’t work.  Unlike never before, young people also need to learn how to navigate unfamiliar terrain when the GPS knowledge bank gets lost amidst the tall, complicated buildings of their lives. This is why I want to give teenagers a compass.

Teaching teenagers how to reflect theologically when faith and life rub will enable them to gain their bearings – to use a compass and determine what direction to head.  Suppose we provide tools that increase their ability to engage with the Bible and the long, long Christian story.  Imagine working with teenagers to untangle complicated issues or discover what Christians have said about these topics before.  What if teenagers practiced creating a response to a tough situation and then learned to listen while others weigh in?  Picture them struggling to state the core questions involved in an issue.

I am describing what Christians have always done – trying to make sense of faith and life.  We already know this process is lot messier than the GPS voice telling me to bear right (even with the English accent).  Christ calls his followers to take up “their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).  As youth ministers, our role includes teaching teenagers how to orient their lives toward Christ so that they can follow.  To do this, they need a compass.

Will you wrap one up and give it to the teenagers you care for this year? 

Take the information you plan to teach this fall, evaluate your approach, and make a few adjustments.  Let’s empower teenagers to navigate the complexities so they can discern how to faithfully follow Jesus in their corner of the world.

Sharon Galgay Ketcham is associate professor of theology and Christian ministries at Gordon College in Massachusetts. She earned her PhD in theology and education from Boston College. Sharon’s two decades of experience in ministry include serving in full-time ministry, researching, writing, teaching, and mentoring. As a practical theologian, she’s a scholar for the church and invites people to reflect theologically on lived Christian faith. Sharon lives in New Hampshire with her husband and two children.

Youth Specialties

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